TWO YEARS LATER
The 60in HD TV was flickering on the lounge room wall as Emma channel-surfed happily, as was her habit. A low hum was all that could be heard as the volume was barely above mute out of consideration for the hard-working former mayor.
Regina was stretched out regally across three of the couch's seats, reading some paperwork, while Emma sat on the fourth, absentmindedly rubbing her lover's black-socked feet in her lap as she watched the screen. A cooled mug of hot chocolate was on the floor at her side and a bag of Doritos was perched on the Tasmanian oak coffee table in front of her.
Corn chips spilled onto the table but Regina was deliberately ignoring the infraction in the interests of domestic harmony. Henry was asleep in his bedroom, the past few days spent visiting his Fairytale Land relatives exhausting him.
Regina's eyes flicked up from her paperwork, taking in the colorful WNBL game. She glanced at the blonde doing miraculous things to her feet. "Could you be any more clichéd? Women's basketball?"
"I didn't think you'd care," Emma grinned. "Those council papers are sooo engrossing, right?"
"Someone has to keep this town's budget balanced. Do you really expect a former cricket has the first clue?"
Emma snorted. But it was a fair point. Regina had been pressed into service as the Storybrooke Council's Treasurer when Archie had finally admitted that the downside of running a town was, well, running it.
To Regina's immense personal satisfaction there had been exactly zero complaints when he'd come to her, begging for her help, a harried look on his pinched features. "Between this and the rezoning applications, Regina, I just cannot see how … I just… You have to help!"
It was the most desperate he'd ever looked. Regina might have huffed for all of three seconds before deciding, but it was all for show. She liked having a purpose, and she liked knowing she kept her town functioning smoothly.
Although it was a much reduced town now.
Only a third of the original inhabitants remained this year, although the numbers shifted dramatically up or down every holiday as relatives from Fairytale Land or Storybrooke grabbed newly harvested beans and jumped realms to see loved ones. Henry enjoyed regular visits with his grandparents, and they in turn came to the modern world once a month, having unofficially taken over Regina's roomier mansion as their Storybrooke headquarters.
To everyone's surprise, it had been at Regina's suggestion. She'd just sniffed indifferently and said it was Henry's house more than anyone's these days and it's what he'd want. Besides, leaving it empty "seemed a waste".
Fairytale Land had never been the same after the initial four long, angry months worth of protests and rallies over in Storybrooke. Although all the monarchs returned to their realms and tried to re-establish their authority, only David and Snow had actually succeeded in retaining their loyal citizens. This was in no small part due to the fact they were on record as not having actually massacred anyone. Much to the other monarchs' chagrin.
Thomas and Cinderella hadn't stayed long in their realm, their people making their displeasure for his partying ways well known. The couple didn't even bother trying to win their people back, returning immediately and settling down for a family life in Storybrooke.
"Antibiotics," was all Cinderella had said when Regina had once asked curiously why they'd so easily given up their throne. Their little girl had been exceptionally sick early on, so Regina had merely nodded, one mother to another. The couple had two children now, along with a modest house near a spacious park, and seemed remarkably content.
Frederick and Abigail had tried and spectacularly failed to retain their position of power and in the end refused to go down without a fight. These days they stubbornly stayed in their castle but ruled absolutely no one. Their vast lands were beautiful, which Abigail appreciated. And if Frederick sometimes stared out from the balcony towards where his estate had once housed a vast army of faithful subjects, no one commented.
Then there was King George. No one had seen him since that day.
David had headed over to the sheriff's station to bring him lunch given Emma had been off camping with Regina in the final days of the trial. He discovered the jail cell completely empty. As in – no George, no cot bed, no blanket, nothing. Just three walls and bars on the fourth. He'd tested the door, of which he had the only key, and was shocked to find it still firmly locked.
For weeks he interviewed everyone in town who might have known something. He came up blank. The only lead he had was when someone thought they saw Loreena Greene enter the sheriff's department that day and re-emerge five minutes later before leaving Storybrooke for good.
No one had ever seen Greene since, either. So the fate of the newly dubbed "massacring monarch" forever remained a mystery.
Rumpelstiltskin had returned to Storybrooke five months after he'd left - forlorn, curmudgeonly and alone. He barely spoke to anyone anymore and Belle would only say he'd finally found his lost son in New York, and Bae had wanted nothing to do with him. He'd stayed for months trying to convince his boy that he'd changed before finally accepting the inevitable and heartbrokenly leaving him behind a second time.
He and Belle fought often these days about whether or not to return to a realm with magic. The pawnbroker's pleas were countered by wide blue eyes begging that he not return to dark old ways. To temptation. It was an increasingly familiar sight to see the once-feared Dark One pacing up and down Main St late at night, his cane tapping a bruising staccato beat as he tried to reign in his temper about his neutered, powerless existence in Storybrooke.
Archie had recently offered them free couple's counselling. Belle immediately said yes.
Rumpelstiltskin was taking it under advisement.
Over at the stables, Matt was adamant about settling in for the long haul on his beloved horse ranch, and Archie was more than happy to stay at his side. Just as Regina had promised before the curse had broken, fresh mayoral elections were called eleven months later. The psychiatrist won in a landslide – 78% of votes.
But the real news story had been who else had been on the ballot.
Regina smiled at the memory of coming second in that two-horse race. She had read the fine print of her court sentence and discovered she was expected to be stripped of all existing titles. Nothing in there about preventing her from gaining future titles.
Oh she had never expected to win as everyone assumed. She hadn't expected it to be close either. People presumed she must have felt embarrassed about the outcome.
She most certainly did not.
It was Emma who finally figured it out a week after her crushing defeat. She nudged her in the ribs one morning, waking her up.
"I get it," she said with a laugh, "You were just using the elections for a free poll of what people think of you now. You wanted to see how hated you still are. Or not."
Regina had cracked an eyelid, unimpressed at being awoken for something so obvious. "Really dear, did you figure this out all by yourself?"
Emma snickered. "So, 22% huh? You got to find out that 22% of Storybrooke doesn't outright hate you. So that's good. Right?"
Regina had sighed and finally opened both her eyes. "Actually, I found out one in five people don't just 'not hate' me but would be happy to have me lead them again, even knowing who and what I was. That was especially gratifying." She gave a pleased twist of her lips. "Much better than anticipated. I look forward to the next election to see how far my popularity improves. I should probably start planning now."
"Ugh, Regina! You are so…"
"Thank you, dear."
"Not what I meant and you know it."
"Hmm," Regina had purred and let her hands slip over to the gap between Emma's boy shorts and tank top. They settled on bare skin and began to stroke delicately. Goose bumps broke out across Emma's stomach and her breath hitched.
"So are you quite sure you don't want a demonstration? Of my 'unbelievableness'?" Regina asked suggestively.
She heard Emma gulp, and gave a throaty chuckle. "That's what I thought."
The sheriff confirmed, much later and after a few breathy sighs, that polling had vastly underestimated Regina Mills' many talents and boundless appeal.
Part of Regina's gradual rise in standing, Emma was convinced, was due to the nature of community service she'd been ordered to do. It had made her considerably more approachable, the blonde argued.
Regina could still remember the moment Archie had broken the news to her. She would spend a day in each and every Storybrooke resident's home, doing any manual or desk task they saw fit during that day, to atone personally to all her people for her curse.
Farmer Nate had been the first in line. He'd handed her a shovel, given a toothless smirk and peered at her expectantly.
"I'm sure you know the drill by now," he told her. "You stared at the sheriff in action long enough to know how it's done."
And so Regina Mills, one-time evil queen and terror across five realms, had spent the first day of her exile shovelling shit.
Emma thought it only fair to return past favors and had rocked up to watch, unfolding a chair, stretching out her long legs, and pulling out a picnic hamper. She had at least kept Regina well-fed and watered with copious snacks while playfully calling out "encouraging" technique adjustments and suggesting her ass still looked adorable even covered in shit.
Regina had rolled her eyes and offered more detailed suggestions about what her lover could do with her "helpful" advice, causing Emma to laugh uproariously.
Emma had, however, helped out for most of the afternoon to get it finished, and then spent hours that night showing her just how impressed she was at her lover's willingness to go along with an order designed to demean and humble her. By the end of that first day, Regina came away seeing what should have been a ghastly humiliation as a positive.
After that first day's trial by fire, few tasks thereafter seemed insurmountable, and Emma often came by to give her a hand on the manual labor ones. Regina had come to be very fond of the sight of her girlfriend's biceps rippling under the summer heat as she hauled, dug or toted alongside her.
Some days the former mayor would find herself in an elderly resident's home being asked for help balancing a household budget. Or explaining some confusing council bylaws to them that affected their lives. After a while Regina developed quite the reputation at these tasks in particular, and seemed to have an affinity with those most vulnerable residents.
Emma told her she couldn't have been prouder. Regina had merely rolled her eyes and affected indifference but secretly she loved the warmth she felt inside every time Emma said it.
It took almost 18 months for Regina to finish her one-on-one community service. By the end of it she had an exhaustive knowledge of all her former constituents and their habits. And they, in turn, had a greater appreciation for her that in many cases bordered on respect and approval.
So when Archie Hopper shifted anxiously from foot to foot at her front door one morning and asked her to be his council treasurer, not a peep of dissent was heard. The pragmatic residents of Storybrooke took the view that, say what you will about Regina Mills, but their one-time Evil Queen was badass with budgets. And they did very much like their trash collected on time and potholes fixed regularly.
Regina's eyes flicked up again to the TV. Emma had at some point gotten bored with her women's basketball and changed channels. Yet again. CNN came up with some election coverage. Boston's mayoral race. She paused and set down her papers as a familiar face appeared. And then another. She blinked in surprise.
"Shit, hey Regina, do you see who I see?" Emma asked, squeezing the foot in her lap sharply, eyes wide.
"Indeed," she replied, with a slow smile. "Turn up the volume."
Emma hit a button on the remote and a commentator's voice filled the room.
"So just repeating, with 68% of votes counted it seems clear that former Boston Police Commissioner Sheldon Jackson will be the new mayor of Boston. His election brings with it a couple of firsts, doesn't it Sally?"
"It sure does, Stuart. He's the first ever African American mayor in Boston, and if you look at the footage you'll see the crowds cheering him on in the bottom of the screen. His daughter, Nene Jackson, who we saw earlier, a former Skowhegan police officer, also becomes the first openly gay member of a Boston First Family."
Emma, with a handful of cheesy Doritos halfway to her mouth let go in shock, spraying half-chewed corn chips as she blurted: "The fuck?!"
Regina snorted. Footage of Nene Jackson and a woman entering the party headquarters earlier, hand in hand, was replayed and the former mayor remembered only too well the closeted enraged police officer who'd threatened her at Bill's Eats and Fuel because Emma had stolen her one-time girlfriend.
"Well the good officer looks like she's made a few lifestyle adjustments since our run in," Regina said in surprise.
"… seen here with her partner of two years, Misha Holmes. Apparently they met at college where they were both studying photography after Nene left the force saying she wanted a career change from policing."
"That's right Sally. There was a bit of tension early on in the campaign, if you recall, with the evangelical backers of Police Chief Jackson unhappy over his daughter's coming out. But that certainly died down in Week Two, and we all know why."
There was laughter and much head shaking between the political anchors.
Emma was staring open-mouthed at the screen and Regina wasn't faring much better, gaping.
"And I think we're about to see the cause of Jackson's remarkable turnaround. You know, he was an almost unwinnable ten points down in the polls until he got his new campaign manager. A woman who came out of nowhere and completely rewrote the Boston political scene."
A tall elegant woman swept into the room, a Bluetooth earpiece in one ear and a phalanx of highly strung advisors surrounding her. She was leaning on a cane but her charisma and command presence were undeniable.
She owned the room.
Emma and Regina gave stereo gasps.
"Loreena?" Emma said. "What the hell?"
"Loreena," Regina smiled, pleased. "Why am I not shocked?"
"…rewrote the political scene? Please Sally, she steamrolled it. Poor Aiden Quincy resigned in, what, four days of her arrival…"
"Three, Stuart, and I don't think anyone buys he'd never seen that campaign donation before in his life. Didn't he look guilty! And so shocked to be caught."
"The next rival folded eight days later – Jonathon Hallibart – and he was a veteran candidate. Most favored to win. Four campaigns he'd been in before, including one in Chicago, and he said he'd never faced a more gruelling election in his life. He even offered the Greene Machine a job. Remember that?"
"How could we forget her response! The trailer of dead fish and that now famous note."
"Ouch, right! What a way with words. Don't cross, Loreena!"
"Next came Susan Murphy – she was a red hot contender. Had the women's vote all stitched up, isn't the so, Sally?"
"Oh my, I thought Murphy could have done it but it took less than a month and Jackson's campaign manager had us thinking the former police chief had more ovaries than Murphy. Remember that stunning speech Loreena wrote for him – about looking down and seeing our daughters at our feet, really seeing them? Still brings a tear to the eye. The question is, where did Loreena Greene come from? No one seems to know."
"Well, Stuart, I've heard everything from a small town in Maine to Switzerland. But she's not Swiss is she? Maybe we should interview her mom who seems to have turned up tonight."
The camera panned to an elderly woman in the background who looked proud as could be. Loreena had placed a steadying arm on her.
"Who is that?" Regina asked. "Loreena doesn't have a mother."
"Uhmm," Emma said, squinting. "She's the old lady who gave me that goodbye letter for you. That's Loreena's friend. Josephine I think her name is?"
"…Well Washington will definitely have the Greene Machine on speed dial now. She won't be short of offers. Ah. If we look to the floor I can see the mayor elect is ready to make his victory speech. He is just gathering his family on stage now."
They watched as Nene and her partner were welcomed on stage by the new mayor, and Loreena faded into the background off to the side. But even then, faded wasn't the word. The cameras flashed all around the family, and just as many shots were taken of the statuesque campaign manager looking pleased as Josephine squeezed her arm and watched on warmly.
"She said she had greatness in her," Regina murmured. "And look at her."
"I think the American people should be afraid," Emma said with a grin. "Watch out Washington when she gets there."
"Probably." Regina agreed, but her eyes shone proudly.
Emma's phone beeped and she fished it out of her pocket. "Mandy," she muttered. "She's getting her groove on at some karaoke bar tonight with some friends from all the offices around work."
"Ah the illustrious Miss Somerville," Regina said as she plucked the remote from Emma's hand and hit mute, focusing on her lover. "Do you ever miss it – your bounty-hunting business?"
Emma shrugged. "Sometimes, a little. But what I have here, with you and Henry, is pretty hard to beat." She sent a text back to her former secretary and looked up again.
"But I have no regrets selling my business to my old boss though. He's so stoked at having a second chance at making a go of things. And that seems to be the moral of all our stories, right? Second chances?"
"So it would seem."
Regina gave her a soft smile and beckoned her closer. Emma dropped the remote and arranged herself along Regina's side, and curled an arm around the brunette's waist. Regina brought her arms around her and then stroked her hair thoughtfully.
Emma's phone beeped again and she plucked it out of her pocket to look at the screen. Then she started laughing. "Oh no. Oh my fucking god, no."
"Mandy says Shania – that lawyer I dated once – just took to the mike and belted out Dolly Parton's Jolene."
"So?" Regina asked, eyebrows lifting. "Is this somehow significant to our lives?"
Emma shut her phone down and tossed it carelessly on the coffee table with a grin. She cuddled the other woman once more and answered with a smirk: "Because, you musical philistine, Jolene is a country song. So that means Shania is, as of right now, officially a 'country-singing lawyer'."
Regina gave a suppressed bark of laughter. "Ah! I knew it."
"Yeah, yeah. Shuddup." Emma shifted forward and kissed Regina sweetly and dropped her head to her chest. "You're a goddamned genius."
"And don't you forget it," Regina purred, kissing her back.
"Like I ever would," came the affectionate reply. "I love you, you sexy genius."
Regina closed her eyes in bliss, a smile transforming her face.
Now this was the life.
Notes: We made it! I know The Staircase has been a hard gruelling read at times but thank you for sticking with it. I appreciate the support I've had over the past year, especially from Bond. Jane and SgtMac, who both stopped me from quitting when the hatemail got so bad. So many readers and friends touched me along the way with their kind words, like 3-piece-suit and exquisiteliltart, the latter of whom helped me understand curious Americanisms like junkfood names.
This was my last story for the OUAT fandom. I appreciate people trying to lure me back, but nope, I just can't with that show now. Thanks once more for reading. I know it's not for everyone. And I appreciate you all for giving me a chance.
Just an update to add that I now write lesfic books under the name Lee Winter. You can check me out at Amazon or Ylva Publishing. You may even recognise one OUAT-inspired character in my first book, The Red Files. I'll let you guess which one it is. :)